"Taking sides is not my job": "Retrograde" filmmaker Matthew Heineman on documenting a war's end

Salon talks to Matthew Heineman about his new film about the final days of the U.S. War in Afghanistan

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published December 9, 2022 3:00PM (EST)

Retrograde (Tim Grucza/OTP/National Geographics)
Retrograde (Tim Grucza/OTP/National Geographics)

Matthew Heineman has been referred to as "one of the most talented and exciting documentary filmmakers working today." His signature style combines a cinéma vérité approach with "gonzo fearlessness" and "empathetic sensitivity." Beginning with Oscar-nominated "Cartel Land," Heineman developed a filmmaking process that depends on building an extraordinarily high level of trust with his subjects, which allows him to film scenes of intense intimacy.

Heineman has been nominated for a Directors Guild of America award for both the documentary and feature categories, an honor he shares with Martin Scorsese, making them the only two filmmakers to have ever achieved that recognition. 

In his latest film, "Retrograde," he hones his signature style to a new level of art as he covers the final days of the U.S. War in Afghanistan. The film begins by covering the story of a group of Green Berets supporting the Afghan National Army. Once they are ordered to pull out, an operation referred to as "retrograde," Heineman then focuses the film on a young Afghan general, General Sami Sadat, who is fighting desperately to protect his country from a Taliban takeover.

I interviewed Heineman about his new film by phone earlier this month. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The concept of the film shifted when the Biden administration announced plans to pull out of Afghanistan. Had you and your team prepared for the possibility that you would be there at this pivotal historical moment?

Yes and no. This project started several years ago when the timeline of Afghanistan was very unclear. Honestly, it started as sort of an exploration of the cliché question of why we fight wars. I wanted to go on a deployment and do a holistic look at what warfare looks like in the modern age. My producing partner has deep ties with the Green Berets and we worked to get access and permissions to them, but it took several years for that to happen. By that time, it became clear that, wow, we could actually, maybe, use it as a chance to explore this final chapter in the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history. So, it wasn't necessarily what we originally intended to do. But, like most films we have made, it evolved and changed numerous times, including obviously, when Biden pulled out our troops and we were left rethinking what the film was really about.

The film title "Retrograde" refers to a military phrase for withdrawal. But it is obviously a word with a lot of other meanings. What was it about that word that drew you to choose it for the title? 

Obviously, there are multiple interpretations of the title, and the references are all intentional. In the military sense, it's a term for leaving a war zone. But the word obviously means other things and that works with a film that has many meanings. It's a historical document of this final chapter in the war in Afghanistan. It's also an allegorical tale for a dynamic that has happened throughout history and will continue to happen long in the future: going into a country to fight a war, then leaving the country, and the effect that process has on everyone involved. So, I think, like most of the films I've made, whether it is about drugs in Mexico, ISIS in Syria, the opiate epidemic, human trafficking, I try to take this large complex subject that has already been framed by news headlines and stats and humanize it. I try to put a human face to it. And that's certainly what I try to do with "Retrograde."

It's been suggested that the film doesn't take sides when maybe it should. What are your thoughts on whether the film should have been more political in traditional ways? And do you think that at some level your film redefines the idea of taking sides?

"We live in silos, we live in echo chambers. And to me, that's one of the many problems facing our country today."

I feel like I've been trying to redefine even the intention of that question. At some level, I don't even understand the need to ask that question because our world is so divisive. We live in silos, we live in echo chambers. And to me, that's one of the many problems facing our country today. We just don't have rational conversations. And I don't see why I need to play into that as a documentary filmmaker. With "Retrograde" I had this very unique chance to film a story over months and years and tell this deep, emotional, longitudinal story with human beings at the center of it. There's no part of me that feels like I need to explain how we got here or who's at fault or to analyze the war because that's done every day by the traditional news media.

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Instead, I feel like it's my job to generate conversation and to allow entry points for people of all political persuasions and beliefs and ideologies to create this empathetic connection with a conflict that feels far away. When we think about the American public, you have to ask: When's the last time they might have had a conversation about the war in Afghanistan? And if they did at all, did they understand the personal side of the story? What I try to do is make you feel the story so that you can imagine, what would that be like if that was me, if I was a general faced with this hard situation? What choices would I make, what decisions would I make? If that was my son, my brother, my cousin, my sister fighting, how would I feel?  

My goal is to make this world a little bit smaller by building more empathy and then maybe, you know, creating a dialogue that can actually be rational and include all sides at the table. I could go on forever about this, but I feel very, very passionately that "taking sides" is not my job and we have more than enough of that in this world right now. I don't even know what taking a political stance means. I don't mean to be argumentative, but it truly makes my blood boil when I get that question, which I get all the time.

So, in a sense, you go into each film deliberately avoiding having a predefined expectation of how the story will go? 

Exactly. You've heard me say this before, and I'll say it again because it still is true. When I was 21 years old, I had a mentor who taught me that if you end up with the story you started with, then you weren't listening along the way. It's good advice for life and good advice for filmmaking. Don't be dogmatic. Be open to the story changing. That advice is something that I truly hold incredibly close to my heart and that I have used every step of the way in my career, both in terms of macro decisions like which films I choose to make, but also in a micro sense within each shoot, within each day filming, within each scene or moment. I feel like so many films and filmmakers do go into these experiences with preordained ideas that they're trying to fulfill. And I just don't know what the point of that is. You're just reinforcing your own beliefs, or finding people or ideas or interview subjects to reinforce your own beliefs. And that's just not that interesting to me.

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So, speaking of unexpected outcomes, talk to me about what drew you to focus so much of the film on the story of General Sami Sadat, who carries on trying to defend Afghanistan from the Taliban after the U.S. military left.

"There are a thousand reasons we lost to the Taliban and this film is not an attempt to answer those questions, but one of the reasons why it went so badly was the lost morale after the U.S. left the way it did."

He was just this extraordinary person and he was pushed into extraordinary circumstances.  A great part of the narrative tension of the film as we pivot to focus on the general is the way that every metaphorical neon sign is blaring "stop, give up, this is over, the country's falling." Yet, up until the very end, he had this sort of unwavering belief in himself and his men that maybe, just maybe, they could pull it off.  That if they could keep the Taliban from taking over in Helmand or southern Afghanistan, that maybe the country could hold together. And you know, he believed in Afghanistan, he believed in his country and his people and in the importance of winning this. He knew the Taliban and what they would bring if the Afghan army lost.

To have that level of access to a general is really unique. I mean, in some ways, we're making "The Darkest Hour." It's rare to be in control rooms and in the bathroom shaving with someone with that much power. It was an incredibly, incredibly unique window both into human nature, but also into warfare. And the viewer knows about the war in Afghanistan and how it all fell apart, but this is a totally new part of the story. I think we owe so much to him for making himself vulnerable at such an incredibly difficult moment in his career and his life. There are a thousand reasons we lost to the Taliban and this film is not an attempt to answer those questions, but one of the reasons why it went so badly was the lost morale after the U.S. left the way it did. And part of General Sadat's job in his position was to motivate his men and to coalesce them into a belief that they could win. He literally had to recruit new soldiers into the army as people were fleeing the battlefield. We tried to capture that story.

Your style doesn't rely on either traditional interviews or voiceovers, but it leaves viewers with a sense that they've been witness to a lot of personal sharing. Your films offer more vulnerability, more intimacy than viewers tend to get in a documentary. Talk about those style choices and how you achieve them.

I get criticized for that. The other day someone wrote an amazing review of "Retrograde" and then in the final paragraph complained that it looks like a Hollywood feature because it looks too slick. I just don't understand that. Am I supposed to not hone my craft and grow as an artist? To me, the aesthetics are really important. And you know, my goal always at every step along the way, whether it's shooting or in the edit room, is I want you to feel what it's like to be there. I want you to feel like what it's like to be in the control room as you're calling in an airstrike or drone strike. I want you to feel like what it's like to be in a Blackhawk Helicopter as rockets are being shot at you. I want you to feel what it's like to go to the front lines of a war zone as your country is crumbling and there's a lack of communication and information.

I want you to feel like you're there and that's what I fight for every single day. It's what I fight for in terms of getting access to shoot the way I shoot, whether it's inside General Sadat's mind, mining the emotional depth and feeling of what he's going through as a leader, or whether it's in difficult circumstances while he's sitting on the fence of the Governor's Palace in Lashkargah as the Taliban are encroaching and sniper bullets are going overhead. I'm interested in both the deep recesses of the human brain and the experiences. So, when I'm editing, I am thinking through how to achieve those two things at the same time. Every single frame, every single moment, every single sound, every single pixel in my film was deliberated, thought about, was argued about and was intentional.

So how would you describe your aesthetic goals? 

I guess there are many, many, many different things I am reaching for, but if I were to summarize one thing, it would be to place you in situations and make you feel like you understand what it's like to be there. And maybe in doing so, you will either gain more empathy for the world or greater understanding of the subjects in a way that headlines or stats or interviews can't. There's a reason why I hold on faces for a very long time. You know, faces don't lie, cannot lie. In interviews, people can lie, either because they're nervous or they want to spin a narrative. But faces don't lie. That explains the motif that we developed both in the field and also in the editing room of holding on faces for a really long time. 

"In interviews, people can lie, either because they're nervous or they want to spin a narrative. But faces don't lie."

That's why when President Biden announced the pullout of our troops, we wanted to capture the look on the Green Beret's faces. Those looks said more than any interview could ever say about what they felt. The subsequent scene, as they say goodbye to their Afghan counterparts, has reaction shots that speak more than words can ever speak about the feeling of being abandoned and the feeling of "I can't believe this is happening" and the sorrow of leaving our Afghan partners. We go after this kind of shot all the way up until the final part of the movie where we shoot a woman looking out from across a fence. She writes an essay, a novel, with her eyes and facial expressions and body language in a way that, you know, interviewing her could never do. So, I just believe deeply in this type of storytelling, for better or worse. I don't know if I'm right or I'm wrong. But these are my instincts and I follow them. 

Have you heard any feedback from the Afghan community on the film?

We had a number of Afghans on our crew, above and below the line, and were getting feedback constantly and in the filmmaking process from the Afghan perspective about how it was being interpreted and received. Now that it's out in the world it has been seen by hundreds of thousands and in general, it is just incredibly emotional. It's the loss of their country, whether they're in exile or not. It pulls back all the memories of that horrific time. Then for someone like General Sadat, it adds the feeling that he failed to keep his country together. So, I think it's just incredibly hard to watch the movie and incredibly emotional.

In 2002, one year after the war in Afghanistan started, 83 percent of U.S. citizens couldn't even find Afghanistan on the map. Today many experts talk about how the quick fall of the Afghan government took place because Americans never understood the country. Do you think this film will help Americans understand Afghanistan? 

It seemed clear that we didn't understand Afghanistan. I'm not disagreeing with that. But the film doesn't focus on why things went wrong or right. I'm not sure the country will be understood or not understood through the film. But I think one of the things that our president said and many people echo is that the Afghans didn't have a will to fight. They patronizingly say that we gave them everything and they failed to hold it together on their own because they didn't have a will to fight. Yet, in the film we show a general living, for better or worse, with a will to fight up until the very end.

I think wars are often started and debated by politicians in white houses, white buildings, very far away from the practical realities of the places in which these wars are actually fought. I think the film is a living, breathing document of the massive chasm between the ideological reasons for going to war and the reality of those who are actually fighting it in real time.

We start the movie with voices from presidents of both political parties speaking from a podium and then we smash cut right down into the chaos of the Kabul airport. It's not an accident we started the movie that way.

"Retrograde" premiered on National Geographic Channel on December 8 and Disney+ on December 9, and will be available on Hulu on December 11.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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Afghanistan War Documentary Interview Matthew Heineman Movies Retrograde